October 16, 2009— -- Watch the cheerleaders at Pleasant Valley High School in Bettendorf, Iowa, and you may want to stand up and cheer yourself. They don't always execute perfect routines; in fact, they may miss steps or clap off beat once in a while. But their fun is contagious.
These cheerleaders are like no others. In the Spring of 2008, cheerleaders Sarah Cronk and Sarah Herr got the idea to expand their varsity squad.
"I got really inspired when I went to a Special Olympics program where they had a bunch of cheerleaders come and we helped them with the clinic and everything," said Herr. "I was like, I want to spend more time with these great athletes."
Herr went to her coach, Pam Cinadr, and said she wanted to have a special needs squad cheer with the Pleasant Valley Varsity team.
"I just anticipated that it would be another flash in the pan, but once she got a hold of it she had a passion and it just took off," Cinadr said.
The recruits, ages 8 through 15, all have special needs, from autism to down syndrome. They're called the Spartan Sparkles, and they work every bit as hard as the varsity girls.
Since the spring of 2008, the older girls and the Sparkles have practiced together twice a week.
"Their confidence has grown a huge amount," said Brenna O'Neill, 18, the cheerleaders' captain. "Every single day they walk in with a bigger smile on their face, and they run and they're excited to see everyone and they're ready to practice."
"The big thing is that when we started we thought we'd be teaching them cheers," said Herr. "But we didn't think they'd be teaching us. They've taught us so many things about life and it's really amazing."
At every game during every season, they're out there – cheering together.
"I think that it's really given them a feeling of belonging and acceptance. Usually when someone has a disability, society can only see what they can't do, but through the sparkle effect, we've really exposed what they can do," said Cronk.
"These obstacles they've overcome are just tremendous. I've learned a lot about perseverance," Herr added.
"Like there's thousands of people dying to see us perform," said 12-year-old Katie Dwyer, a member of the Sparkles.
And the best part of being on the team?
"Fun, yeah!" said Dwyer. "The friends. The friends I've made."